Anchor Any River (…and Avoid Disaster!) by Gary Lewis

Video best anchor for river fishing

Have you ever thrown out the hook and looked around to see that you were 50 yards downstream from the place you thought you anchored?

You’re not fishing where you wanted to.

No big deal, you think, but the incorrect employment of an anchor can have you in the drink quicker than a flea can hop out of danger.

sunken drift boat river accident crash float

According to Mark Angel, people sunk boats in nasty water at about the same rate then as they do now. I read about Mark Angel in Salmon Trout Steelheader sometime back about 1979. Mark, began to make a name for himself in the 1970s.

Angel is called between five and ten times a year to rescue boats and sometimes bodies from places with names like Whitehorse and Buckskin Mary.

A lot of Angel’s salvage operations are on drift boats that go down in whitewater.

You would think that boats get sunk because they hit big rocks, because the pilot took the wrong route through the rapid. But a lot of boats go down because something goes wrong with the anchor.

“Most of the boating accidents I go on are anchor-related,” Angel said.

It was Father’s Day. A father and son hit the water before daylight with the idea they were going to establish their anchor point early. When they arrived, there was another anchor in the water and they saw the orange buoy almost under water, leaving a huge wake. They circled it, not knowing that the guy had tried to pull the anchor and had left 200 feet of rope floating downstream of the buoy.

“These were experienced guys, good boaters, but they just made a mistake. They had just changed the motor from a jet to an outboard and when they circled below the buoy, they got the other guy’s rope wrapped in the prop.”


‘That wouldn’t have been so bad, but now the boat had turned backward in the current. One of the anglers tilted the motor up and that changed the angle of the rope stuck to the bottom. They went down like a rock.

Once on the Deschutes, Angel spotted a boater putting in at the Trout Creek launch. “He had an anchor swinging on the back of his boat as he was backing it in. I told him to stow the anchor before he headed downriver. He didn’t and the anchor dropped into Whitehorse rapids.”

Scott Haugen said it in an issue of STS. Don’t tie a knot in your anchor rope.

When the anchor is swinging behind the boat, bumping through the rapids, it can jar loose from the cleat.

The anchor drops in and rope shoots through the pulley. If there’s a knot at the end of the rope, the anchor rope comes tight and the boat sucks right down to the bottom.

You can avoid that grief by putting the anchor inside the boat. “That’s why they put those little pockets inside drift boats,” Angel said.

Anchoring a Jet Boat

“Anchoring in fast water is one of the most dangerous things we do in the guiding industry.” Ed Iman, a longtime walleye guide and sturgeon fisherman takes anchoring seriously in his home water near Hood River and The Dalles.

“The bottom constantly changes. You’ve got mud and hard rock and gravel. You want a rocking chair anchor with a breakaway system. If it gets hung up, the breakaway breaks and you can pull the anchor out backward. In a clay bottom you can’t anchor at all, you just can’t get a bite.”

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rocking chair anchor

To get better hookups, he customizes his anchors. “I take a railroad spike and take the head off it and sharpen the point and weld it to the anchor – one on each tine – and it will dig in and hold where other ones won’t.”

In fast water, with a rocky bottom, use a hook with narrow sharp points that find crevices in the bottom. In big water with a sandy, silted or muddy bottom, opt for a flapper-style anchor.

anchor fishing claw style river

Whatever anchor you choose, it should lay flat to work most efficiently.

Iman uses the EZ Marine system with about eight feet of 3/8-inch chain that provides the weight to hold the anchor bar down on the bottom.

“On deep water (like the Columbia in the spring) you need at least 300 feet of rope,” Iman said.

Run 250 feet from the anchor to the buoy and 50 feet from the buoy to the boat. In less than 50 feet of water run about 125 feet of anchor line and a 50-foot tag, which should be polypropylene so that it floats. The anchor will hold best as the line reaches close to horizontal, attached to a cleat on the bow, tied off with a slip knot.

anchor bouys buoys river fishing boats

Larger boats and anchor systems need more flotation.

Use a 15-inch buoy, with 84 pounds of buoyancy for an anchor of 35 pounds or less. Select a large 18-inch buoy, with 135 pounds of buoyancy, for an anchor up to 100 pounds.

Jody Smith, of Elkton, OR, spends part of every spring on the Columbia where he anchors up to fish for sturgeon.

On his home water, the Umpqua River, he employs a 35-pound anchor.

“You want narrow sharp edges to stick into the bedrock and sometimes it is just an inch of lip that is holding the anchor in place. That and a lot of chain so the shank is laying down.”

Mount a sharp, fixed blade knife, in a sheath, within easy reach of the anchor line at the front of the boat and another one at the stern – then climb into a life jacket each time you head into big water.

“Every year you hear of people that capsize. A lot of bad things can happen and they’re all avoidable with a little bit of common sense,” Smith said.

anchor fishing river rope boat

Caption: The anchor will hold best as the line reaches close to horizontal, attached to a cleat on the bow, tied off with a slip knot. Photo by Gary Lewis

To retrieve the anchor:

…estimate how much line is out and how far upstream you’ll have to go to retrieve it. Pick a spot upriver and go right to it.

Swing 20 feet wide and pull the buoy sideways. Watch the rope go by the boat, not under the boat. Drive at about 10 mph and watch until water starts going over the buoy.

Keep pulling until you feel the anchor and see more water going over the buoy. Now, the anchor is caught by the puller and held there for the boater to retrieve. With the anchor held in place by the ball, tow it to open water.

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Now, bring the anchor line into a container or hold, coiled with extreme care so it doesn’t tangle on the next anchor set.

Anchoring a Drift Boat

anchor fishing driftboat steelhead

For anchoring a drift boat, Joe Koffler, of Koffler Boats recommends a three-sided lead pyramid or the hook he calls the Animal, a lead-filled pipe with steel prongs that stick in gravel bottoms and dig into rocky ledges.

“For 14-, 15-, 16- and 17-foot drift boats, you can run a 30- to 40-pound anchor. In lighter flows and with smaller boats, you can get by with a 20-pounder,” Koffler said.

Darren Roe, of Roe Outfitters, in Klamath Falls, prefers pyramid anchors when it comes to locking up a drift boat on the Rogue or holding a raft long enough to fish out a seam on the upper Klamath.

pyramid anchor for driftboat

“On steeper gradient rivers, you don’t want to try to anchor in fast water. You get that side to side sway and it gets too dangerous,” Roe said.

If an anchor sticks too hard, he is not afraid to leave it if he can’t wade in and dislodge it. Roe keeps a second anchor up in the bow. “With the second anchor, you can stabilize the boat and even cant the boat to give both fishermen in the boat a chance to reach the best water.”

Joe Koffler often uses an extra anchor to help balance the boat. “You can move the weight around easily to trim the boat without making the passengers steelhead driftboat hatchery

Chris Carson, a fishing guide from Shady Cove, OR, prefers a 30-pound pyramid to hold his driftboat on the Rogue River.

“Thirty pounds of anchor is not enough to hold you in the middle of the river, but it is enough to anchor in slow water and the inside corners and that’s where the fish lay.”

On the equipment side, Carson suggests changing out the anchor line cleats. “Those cleats will wear out at some point in time.”

Carson suggests that anglers on crowded rivers adopt an anchoring ethic.

“On the rivers I fish, the Klamath, Smith, Rogue, Umpqua, Chetco, Elk and Sixes, there are too many people. You’ve got to give the bank angler some space. You come around a corner and there is a guy there, he got there first, you’ve got to keep moving. If you lay your anchor in front of him, he’s going to get mad. Just because you anchor it doesn’t mean it’s your hole.”

Learn from the Experts

Every year there are new boaters on the water. The best thing a newcomer can do is learn from an expert. Hire a guide and watch how he sets the anchor and how he retrieves it several times during the day.

steelhead fishing anchor

Another good resource is the 75-minute DVD Anchor Fishing for Salmon and Steelhead from Amato Books. Hosts Eric Linde and Carmen Macdonald demonstrate how to assemble an anchor system then show how to safely set and pull anchor in a variety of situations.

Learn Anchor Knots for River Fishing

It Can Happen to Anyone

Mark Angel pointed out that many of the salvage operations he has been called out on have been for expert boaters who got in over their heads.

It almost happened to the salvage expert himself. He was on the Columbia with his family in his jet boat, fishing for sturgeon.

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“Here I thought I was totally safe. I wear life jackets every time I’m in whitewater, but you don’t think you need one on placid water like the Columbia.

We were in shallow water and had 200 feet of rope out to the anchor, but there was a lot of water in the river. We wanted to fish the Washington side, but couldn’t hold on anchor with any rods in the water, so I went to the Oregon side.

We threw three baits in and they held and then we started drifting downstream. I ran upstream to pick up the anchor and was well above where I was anchored.”

Still well above the anchor point and the float, Angel shut off and started retrieving the slack line as he drifted back.

“The line must have been wrapped around a lava pinnacle or something manmade beneath the water because as the boat began to drift back, the rope pulled the bow of the boat under the water,” Angel said.

“It all happened in a half-second. I had the whole family on board and a little baby.”

Because he had a knife close to hand, he was able to cut the rope. “I keep a knife all over my boat. You can’t go two feet on my boat without finding an open knife,” he said.

“Never again will I do anything with an anchor unless everyone on the boat has a life jacket on.”

– Written by Gary Lewis Visit Gary Lewis Outdoors Website

Bonus Content

6 Steps for Anchoring a Jet Boat

  1. Pick your spot. Drift with the current or run back under power to avoid catching the anchor line in the prop.
  1. Drop anchor and buoy. Remember, you’re anchoring the buoy, not the boat. Set the buoy at about two boat lengths upstream from the bow. Let the rope feed out with tension on the line through the anchoring mechanism.
  1. Drift into place. Take a half turn around a cleat on the bow, allowing rope to pay out as the boat drifts back. Tie off with turns around a cleat.
  1. Leave the buoy to chase a fish. If there is 25 feet of line out to the buoy, there should be about 25 feet of tag line left in the bow. The rope should float. Tie on a crab float or a duck decoy to make pickup easier.
  1. Retrieve the anchor. Swing 20 feet wide and pull the buoy sideways. Watch the rope go by the boat, not under the boat. Drive at about 10 mph and watch until water starts going over the buoy. With the anchor held in place by the ball, tow it to open water, away from other boats.
  1. Put it away right. Pour the rope hand over hand into a milk crate or bucket so there are no kinks or knots to cause problems on the next anchor drop. Stow the anchor in the bow.

anchor systems

Jet Boat Anchoring Gear List

  • Columbia River-style hook with narrow, sharp points
  • 8 feet of 3/8-inch chain
  • 250 feet solid braid nylon line
  • 50 feet of polypropylene tag line
  • Crab float or duck decoy on tag
  • Buoy
  • Pulley – Stainless steel, marine quality
  • Line storage crate
  • 2 knives, in sheaths, one mounted in the bow and one at the stern
  • Life preservers
  • Long-handled boat hook

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Ethan Smith is a seasoned marine veteran, professional blogger, witty and edgy writer, and an avid hunter. He spent a great deal of his childhood years around the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in Arizona. Watching active hunters practise their craft initiated him into the world of hunting and rubrics of outdoor life. He also honed his writing skills by sharing his outdoor experiences with fellow schoolmates through their high school’s magazine. Further along the way, the US Marine Corps got wind of his excellent combination of skills and sought to put them into good use by employing him as a combat correspondent. He now shares his income from this prestigious job with his wife and one kid. Read more >>